Last updated on February 2, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, travelling and renting cars In Italy

Getting around Italy: Car Vs. Train/Bus with 2 CASES SCENARIOS

Getting around Italy is a joy to behold, but choosing the right mode of transport can make a significant difference in your journey.

This post delves deep into two realistic travel scenarios to shed light on the timeless debate of renting a car vs public transportation in Italy.

I am going to compare the costs, flexibility, convenience, and overall experience offered by these two transport modes.

But let’s start with more information on what to aspect from public transportation and renting a car in Italy.

The beautiful Cefalu
The beautiful Cefalu

Using Public Transportation in Italy: Process, Costs, Benefits, and Drawbacks

Using public transportation in Italy is relatively simple and straightforward.

You can usually buy tickets for buses, trams, and metros at newsstands, tobacco shops, or vending machines at the station.

The easiest way to buy train tickets is online, however, you can also do it at the train station too using the handy ticket machines (in English and other languages).

Tickets must be validated by stamping them in the machines onboard buses and trams or at the entrance of metro and train stations.

Costs

The cost of public transportation varies based on the city and the region too.

A single bus or metro ticket in Rome or Milan costs about €1.50 and is valid for 100 minutes. A day pass typically costs around €7, while a week pass is about €24.

In the smaller cities, the ticket is in the €1-1.20 range (in Palermo and Catania for example the ticket is €1)

The Fish Market in the Historical Centre
The Fish Market in the Historical Centre of Catania

Trains cost between cities vary depending on distance and type of train (regional, fast, high-speed).

For instance, a high-speed train from Rome to Florence usually costs between €30-€50.

Taxis have metered fares, with a starting fee of about €3-€5 and then a rate per kilometre travelled.

Always make sure to check that the metered system is actually working and it is not covered by a small towel (a typical scam of the tiny number of dishonest taxi drivers)

Benefits

  • Eco-friendly: Public transportation significantly reduces carbon emissions per passenger compared to driving.
  • Cost-effective: Especially for solo travellers, using public transport can be much more cost-effective than renting a car, when considering petrol, parking, tolls, and rental costs.
  • Convenience: the train network is very extensive between cities and towns. Fast trains connect today the major cities. And when trains are not available you can catch a local bus.
  • Sociability: It offers a chance to engage with locals and immerse yourself in Italian culture.
  • Relaxation: It is a no-stress experience. Seat and enjoy the landscape
  • Safety: It is a no-worries experience. Professional drivers run public transportation. No need to think about car insurance, etc.

Drawbacks

  • Schedule Restrictions: Unlike a car, you are at the mercy of the transportation schedule which can be a challenge if they are infrequent or late.
  • Crowds: During peak hours, public transport can become extremely crowded, which might not be comfortable for everyone.
  • Limited for Remote Locations: While cities and towns are well connected, if you wish to explore the countryside or more secluded places, public transport might not be the best choice.
  • Carrying Luggage: If you have heavy or bulky luggage, navigating through busy stations and on-and-off transport can be a hassle.
  • Language Barrier: While major stations in big cities are tourist-friendly with English signage, in more rural or lesser-visited areas, this may not be the case.
Walking around Cortona
Walking around Cortona – Tuscany

Renting a Car in Italy: Process, Costs, Benefits, and Drawbacks

You can easily rent a car in Italy if you have a valid European Driving License.

If you are not from Europe you need to apply for an International Driving Permit (also Brits require it after Brexit).

Also, most rental companies nowadays require a minimum age of 21 years. Others need at least 1 year of driving experience. You can read that on the rental terms.

I highly suggest renting a car online because you get a better price and all the terms are clear in front of you, with no rush.

I usually rent my cars on DiscoverCars, a great aggregator that works in a similar way to AirBnb providing the best price based also on the customers’ feedback (I usually go only for ratings above 7/10).

It’s essential to provide a credit card for security purposes when making the reservation. The debit card may work during the booking phase but you do a credit card at pick up (otherwise they may refuse to give you the car)

I have written a full guide to renting a car in Italy, with literally everything you need to know before booking a car, including a few possible scams.

I usually rent my cars on the DiscoverCars website, a rental aggregator that compares the prices of local and global operators providing the best deal around, with the possibility to add full insurance for just 7 Euros/day, such a great peace of mind.

Free thermal baths
Free thermal baths between Tuscany and Rome reachable only by car

Costs of renting a car in Italy

Rental costs can vary greatly.

It usually depends on the type of car, the time of the year (July and August being the peak season) and the duration of the rental.

For a small economy car, expect to pay from €30-€50 per day.

The petrol is actually quite expensive in Italy, especially if you are used to the American or Australian prices. The average price is between €1.60 and €1.80.

If you plan to take the Autostrada in Italy (Hway/Motorway) then you have to budget also the cost of the toll which depends on the length of the route.

For example, a trip from Milan to Rome costs around €40 (based on where you start/finish the trip).

Parking in the Italian city centres can be pricey, with rates of €2-€5 per hour common in places like Rome or Milan.

Car Insurance in Italy is usually included in the rental price, but excess reduction insurance can be an additional €10-€20 per day if done at the rental agency. (Full Insurance, no excess, with DiscoverCars comes at a bargain price of 7 Euro) .

Benefits

  • Flexibility: Renting a car gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace, on your own schedule, and visit remote places that public transport may not reach.
  • Comfort: You have your own space, can adjust the environment to your liking, and don’t have to carry your luggage around.
  • Time-Efficient: For some routes, particularly in rural areas, driving can be quicker than public transport.
  • Convenience for Groups: For families or groups travelling together, a car can be a cost-effective and convenient solution.

Drawbacks

  • Driving Stress: Navigating unfamiliar roads and dealing with different driving styles can be stressful. In addition, Italy’s historic city centres often have restricted driving zones (ZTLs) where fines are easily incurred.
  • Additional Costs: The cost of petrol, parking, tolls, and potential traffic fines can add significantly to the cost of your trip.
  • Environmental Impact: Unlike public transport, cars have a much higher carbon footprint.
  • Parking Difficulties: Finding parking, especially in big cities or small historic towns, can be a challenge and often expensive.

In conclusion, renting a car in Italy offers a great deal of freedom and flexibility. However, this comes with its own costs and challenges.

Martini Building from Vittorio Emanuele Gallery
Milan – Martini Building from Vittorio Emanuele Gallery

Renting a car in Italy Vs. Public transportation – 2 case studies

Case Study #1: Visiting the major Italian cities for art and culture

For a trip to Italy encompassing Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast, both car rental and public transportation offer their unique benefits and challenges.

This comparison weighs up the cost, convenience, and overall experience of both modes of transport for this specific itinerary.

Car Rental

Renting a car for a trip from Milan in the north to the Amalfi Coast in the south costs around €350-€500 per week for a compact car (with basic insurance, add more for full insurance). Fuel, based on the average petrol price of €1.60 per litre, can add another €120-€150 considering the 1,000 km plus journey.

Tolls, largely unavoidable on Italy’s well-maintained motorways, could come to around €70 for this route.

Parking costs can vary wildly. Expect to pay around €25/day or more in Milan, Florence and Rome. Up to €50 on the Amalfi Coast. In Venice, where cars are off-limits, parking at the Tronchetto car park could set you back €25 per day. In Naples, expect to pay about €20 per day.

Moreover, driving in these chaotic cities can be a challenging experience, especially in Naples. Visiting the Amalfi Coast by car is an experience by itself with narrow and winding roads. Spectacular but truly difficult, especially if driving a mid-size car.

Car hire offers unrivalled freedom and convenience. It allows you to explore off-the-beaten-track locations, enjoy impromptu stops for that irresistible photo, and travel at your own pace.

However, in Italy’s major cities, traffic can be heavy, parking scarce and expensive, and Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) zones can catch you out with hefty fines.

Public Transportation

Italy’s public transportation system is extensive and relatively affordable.

A high-speed train from Milan to Venice costs around €35. From Venice to Florence around €40. Florence to Rome €30, and Rome to Naples €20.

These trains are fast and comfortable. They are usually on time but they can get crowded during peak times and peak season (July and August).

Public transportation in cities is also budget-friendly, with single tickets costing around €1-€2 and valid on all buses, trams, and metros for a certain duration.

However, dealing with crowded buses or metro trains after a long day of sightseeing can be tiring.

Getting to the Amalfi Coast is a bit more challenging. From Naples, take a train to Sorrento (€3.60), and then a SITA bus to Amalfi (€2.40).

The journey can be time-consuming and the buses get very crowded, but the views are spectacular.

In this case, the total cost of public transportation for the trip could be around €200 per person, plus city transportation costs, providing significant savings over car rental.

Conclusion

Based on this specific itinerary, public transportation comes out ahead for a few reasons. First, the cost savings are significant. Secondly, it eliminates the stress of driving in heavy traffic and navigating unfamiliar roads, not to mention the headache of finding parking in busy city centres.

Another key factor is that Italy’s historic cities are best explored on foot.

Many city centres are pedestrian-only, and those that aren’t are often subject to ZTL restrictions. Finally, taking the train allows you to relax, enjoy the scenery, and arrive in the city centre.

In this instance, the benefits of public transportation outweigh the convenience and freedom that a rental car offers.

Beautiful drive at sunset time in Tuscany
Beautiful drive at sunset time in Tuscany

Case Study #2: A trip from Milan to Rome through the coast and the countryside

In this case, the itinerary begins in Milan, passes through the Ligurian Coast and Tuscany, explores Chianti, Val D’Orcia, various medieval Tuscan towns, Siena, Perugia, Orvieto, and concludes in Rome.

Car Rental

Let’s start with renting a car to cover the amazing North and Centre of Italy.

The cost for a compact car for approximately two weeks would be between €350-€500/week, depending on the season.

Fuel costs, considering the average price per litre of €1.60-€1.80, would likely reach €200 to €250 for such a journey.

Tolls, a prominent feature of Italy’s motorways, would likely total around €30.

Parking in cities can be expensive, especially within their historic centres, with daily charges between €15-€25.

However, considering the rural nature of this trip, many smaller towns in Chianti, Val D’Orcia and Tuscany offer free or inexpensive parking. It is also worth noting that some rural accommodations might also provide free parking.

Renting a car provides unparalleled freedom to explore rural and scenic areas.

It facilitates impromptu stops at picturesque vineyards or sunflower fields and allows exploration of less accessible medieval towns at your leisure.

Public Transportation

Public transportation is surely more cost-effective but it has its limitations, especially in rural areas.

High-speed trains connect the major cities, like Milan to Genoa, or Florence to Rome. From Genoa to Florence there are no high-speed trains.

The train ticket for the entire trip costs about €100. However, connecting to smaller towns and regions may involve regional trains or buses which are slower and sometimes less reliable.

For instance, reaching towns in the Chianti region or Val D’Orcia would require multiple connections involving trains and buses, turning what would be a straightforward drive into a time-consuming journey.

Budget in between €4 to €20 per journey to be spent on local buses and possibly taxi rides. The alternative is to join an organised tour, especially if you are planning to visit a few wineries.

Arriving in Siena, Perugia or Orvieto by train or bus would be somehow convenient, but then reaching smaller towns or scenic spots in the surrounding areas would again require a bus or even taxi, adding to the overall cost and travel time.

Furthermore, rural buses often have limited schedules, particularly on weekends and public holidays, which could potentially restrict the freedom and spontaneity of your trip.

Conclusion

After weighing up both options, it becomes clear that for this specific itinerary, renting a car would be the more convenient and flexible option.

The ability to visit rural areas, often not well served by public transportation, along with the freedom to adapt the itinerary and timings to personal preferences, outweighs the potential savings offered by public transportation.

Moreover, the convenience of travelling directly from place to place without navigating multiple connections or contending with variable schedules and potential delays offers a more relaxed and enjoyable journey.

Given the rural and scenic nature of this itinerary, a rental car provides the flexibility and convenience to truly explore and appreciate the regions at your own pace, thereby enhancing your overall Italian adventure.

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

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